A Line of Prayer and Poetry Made with Norwegian Wool

The geologists came and declared all rock forms here at this East Icelandic cloister site to be naturally occurring. I believe them. Still, were the natural shapes enhanced 500 years ago? Was the cloister built here because something was recognized in the stone? I think that’s quite likely. Is there a lost art of stonework that is built on the premise of deepening natural forms until they take on meaning? It would make sense: if one were to rub a natural cross over and over again, that would be an intense, and physical, act of prayer. Still, scientists can’t answer questions like that. Likely, no one can. One can, however, enter the spirit of stone with an open mind. That much every human has, if he or she wishes it. So, what do you think: is the image below a group of eroded basalt crystals (certainly) or is it an image of Mary and the Infant Jesus?

P1420857Skriðuklaustur Monolith

Fljótsdalur, Iceland

Or something else that the monks tried to rub off? Or a painting of light that only showed up when the light was at certain angles (true)? Or St. Barbara (possibly the patron saint here)? Or nothing? Maybe it doesn’t matter. This was, however, the stone that the monks saw directly in front of them when they left the entrance to the cloister church and looked, as the landscape directs one here, uphill. That, I thought, was worth thinking on. What I did to help me think on it, not being a geologist or an archaelogist but being a poet (which is an honourable thing, with deep roots of its own) was to go 40 kilometres into town in a snowstorm to buy a ball of wool and to make a line with my hands, to help me think. As a farmer (long ago, and in my heart, still), I know that the hands are a powerful tool for thinking. So, I anchored the line in a crack at Mary’s (?) feet …

… kind of following it where I felt it was leading me…


… which was, downhill, and into the church (it’s a natural flow) …


… past the baptismal font and into the nave, where I discovered that I didn’t want to walk through the walls …


… so back again to the font (I was lost on this spiritual journey for a moment and thought about circling the font, and even tried to walk back up to Mary (?) and link her with a ribbon of life blood blowing around in the wind (ah, it was hard to keep this stuff on earth, did I mention that?), but that felt wrong, and suddenly I saw where I needed to go, drew my line of life back past the font …


… and through the monk’s doorway into the church (instead of the public doorway I had entered before) …


… and through the adjoining doorway into the cloister garden (I’ve always liked gardens, especially church ones and their Edens) …


… and as you can see, to the garden well …


My 70 metres of Norwegian darning wool, purchased for 460 Icelandic Crowns (around $4) was just the right length to drop to the bottom. I thought that was a good sign. I then took these images, so you could walk with me and share the moment of my thinking with my hands. At this point, my Mary was joined to the well in the Garden by passing through the church and the monk’s residence… a beautiful path, I thought. Next, I went to the hillside, picked a birch twig from the grass as a spindle (among the earliest images we have of men and women are made from birch twigs, and in German the word for bone and the word for birch are the same, and my family is German, so, hey) and, starting at the well, rolled the now-charged string back up, and as I wound that 70 metres around a tiny axle, over the wood chips …


… past the stones that once supported the church walls …

stone2… and through the grass …

grass… I felt that I was winding life on the axle of the universe or the pole of the earth, day by day by day, that with each twist of the birch twig to accept the string, a year passed, and I felt life in that string, not just the life the wind gave it, but energy from the universe; I felt that I was weaving with an ancient craft, in a small physical prayer, from the well up to … well, let’s just say Mary, who after all, was a spiritual fire in a human form, until all that energy was there, wound up on its spindle, at her feet …


… and that was my prayer. Not an approved Christian prayer, but, then, I am not a Christian, only a man who walks in a world of spirit, with the sense to know that if you stay at a monastery, do the work. Did I learn anything about the material reality of that stone? No. That’s for geologists and archaeologists. But I did learn this: when I carried that bobbin of yarn back up to my roomI felt that I was carrying a living heart, and carried it with the reverence and care that seemed fitting to that, next to my own, and I realized that if I unwound this thread, anywhere, let’s say tomorrow, or the day after that, or a year after that even, the energy that I had wound with the motion of my body onto that birch twig, would be there and join the points of that new story back to that stone (and my questions of it) and the church and the well. The line was a journey, that I could now carry anywhere, and have to unwind and walk. Whatever that stone is at the cloister, it’s power came from a sense of devotion not far from that. Is poetry anything else? Well, I don’t think so anymore. Now the bobbin sits on my kitchen windowsill (I thought Mary might like the warmth of the hearth) …

woolwindow… (and the steam from my potatoes), waiting for me to think some more, in this fashion of thinking that is not done with words but with the body and in the world. Poetry had its roots there. I have learned here that it has not left them. For me, that stone is not the same.

3 thoughts on “A Line of Prayer and Poetry Made with Norwegian Wool

  1. Lois

    What a wonderful story… I could just imagine you with your red wool under the blue sky, tracking backwards and forwards. I loved the pictures you took to illustrate it, and all the little extra bits like the German words for birch and bone… so many images… thank you!
    By the way, I tried to see Mary and baby Jesus, but all I could see was Joseph with rather a fierce beard… or maybe it was a sphinx…

  2. Susan McCaslin

    These words from Blake come to mind too, Harold: “I give you the end of a golden string, Only wind it into a ball, It will lead in at Heaven’s gate. Built in Jerusalem’s wall.” –William Blake,
    Thanks for sharing this astonishing visual-sound poem. You’re kind of an inter-spiritual Ariadne at the world’s axel. So lovely!


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